Home | Research Themes | Well Being


Sad boy sitting on a bark bench

Our research on well-being emphasises that inequalities in individuals’ overall quality of life matter as much as their economic and financial well-being. Some vulnerable groups are exposed from their earlier years to a set of disadvantages and stressful life events; and these are likely to impact on outcomes in relation to their health and socio-emotional well-being.  Research has shown that children from disadvantaged family backgrounds are more likely to report poorer health and socio-emotional problems, with important repercussions in terms of their well-being and opportunities later in life. We will explore these issues in relation to some vulnerable groups in Scotland, aiming to generate knowledge and inform practice to create the conditions for all people to thrive.

Our current research projects related to well-being inequalities are listed below. These link closely with our research into Socio-economic, Education, Employment, Gender and Age inequalities.


Research Papers

Urban poverty shifting out to the suburbs could further increase inequalities


  • Historically, poverty in the UK has been concentrated near town and city centres.
  • This has had pros and cons for poor households:
    • On the one hand, it means they are closer to public services, amenities and employment opportunities, which tend to be located in urban centres, though they do not always benefit from these.
    • On the other hand, they are more exposed to crime, noise and air pollution, which also tend to be concentrated near urban centres.
  • There is evidence across a range of countries including Scotland (Kavanagh et al. 2016, forthcoming) that urban poverty is decentralising – moving from the inner city to the periphery.


Does comprehensive education reduce health inequalities?

Despite the growing life expectancy witnessed in the last decades, in many western countries, socio-economic inequalities in health persist. A voluminous body of work describing social and economic determinants of health inequalities exists, but much less is known about the impact of social policies, and specifically educational reforms, on health. In this paper, we examine whether the introduction of comprehensive secondary education in Britain has led to any change in health inequalities measured by a variety of both objective and subjective indicators. Equalizing educational opportunities is an argument for a comprehensive school system. Given that education is an important social determinant of health, it is hypothesised that a more equitable comprehensive system could reduce health inequalities in adulthood. To test this hypothesis, we exploited the change from a largely selective to a largely comprehensive system that occurred in the UK from the mid-1960s onwards and compare inequalities in health outcomes of two birth cohorts (1958 and 1970) who attended either system.

Social disparities in residential mobility and children’s outcomes in early and middle childhood

Studies of residential mobility over the course of individual lives have documented that individuals are more mobile when they have young children. Given the high rate of residential mobility, and the importance of early life experiences for later outcomes, it is crucial to understand the implications of moving home for children development. A large body of research has shown that children who stay in the same home have better outcomes than their more mobile counterparts. However, a dichotomization of mobility experiences (movers versus non-movers) has limited explanatory power and calls for approaches that consider frequency, motivations, and characteristics of residential moves. Further, whereas more advantaged families often make intentional moves to better housing or neighbourhood, more disadvantaged families are at risk of deterioration of their housing contexts. Families might also differ in the resources they have to buffer the negative effects of a move.

This project addresses the following research questions:

Maternal employment and the well-being of children living with a lone mother in Scotland

Previous research has shown that children who do not live with both of their parents fare worse on a variety of outcomes. However, less is known about the heterogeneity of children’s socioeconomic context and the factors that contribute to the negative effect of family structure. The study enhances understanding by regarding maternal employment as a differentiating element in children’s levels of socioemotional well-being. It also recognizes that not all types of employment act in the same way, and seeks to shed light on some of the mechanisms through which maternal employment operates on children’s well-being.

It addresses the following research questions:

1) Is maternal employment beneficial to the socioemotional well-being of children living with a lone mother?

2) Does the relationship between maternal employment and child well-being vary depending on the mother’s number of hours worked, or occupational status?

3) To what extent is the relationship between maternal employment and children’s well-being mediated by household income and by maternal psychological wellbeing?

Like Mother, like child? The intergenerational transmission of maternal offending

That parental offending acts as a strong risk factor for offending in children is well-established within criminology. Yet research on the effects of prior maternal offending is relatively limited, despite the fact that many women take on a significantly higher share of childcare responsibilities, and as such, might reasonably be expected to exert an especially strong influence on their children. Aimed in part at redressing this imbalance, this study investigates the intergenerational transmission of maternal offending, and whether prior maternal offending affects boys and girls in different ways. Drawing on the longitudinal Growing Up in Scotland survey, the analysis uses a series of regression models to assess to the risk of offending among a cohort of 12-year-olds.  In addition to maternal offending, the analysis also considers contemporaneous risk factors, including family functioning and structural deprivation, to ascertain whether past behaviours, more recent circumstances or a combination of both are most likely to predict offending in children.

ACEs, places and inequality: Understanding the effects of adverse childhood experiences and poverty on offending in childhood

Over the last three decades, an extensive body of research evidence has emerged on the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a range of negative outcomes, including offending. Using data from the longitudinal Growing Up in Scotland survey, this paper investigates how both ACEs and material deprivation influence the risk of child offending at age 12. The analysis uses a series of binary logistic regression models to show that while the simple number of ACEs is a strong predictor of child offending, that the type of experience is also important, and that parental maltreatment is particularly significant. The analysis also shows that there are complex interactions between poverty and ACEs, and that persistent poverty at the neighbourhood level also acts as a key predictor of childhood offending.

Policy implications

Overall, the results suggest the need for an ACEs and Places agenda: for universal services to support all children who experience parental maltreatment, and for policies that mitigate the adverse effects of living in deprived areas.

The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for policy in relation to children and young people: a research review

Smyth and fellow collaborators at ESRI, Dublin.

Research questions: 

How has COVID-19 impacted on the lives of children and young people in terms of their family and peer relationships; formal and informal learning; physical and mental health and wellbeing; and transitions to further/higher education, training and the youth labour market?

Type(s) of inequality and how inequality is defined:

Inequality is defined as the differences in social class, education and/or household income across groups of children, young people and families.

Approach or method used:

The transition to primary school: How family background and childcare experiences influence children’s skills on school entry

This paper uses data from Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) and the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) for Scotland to explore the factors influencing inequalities in children’s skills on entry to primary school. The main research questions are:

•    Are there social inequalities by parental background in cognitive skills on entry to primary school?
•    To what extent do early childcare experiences and family environment explain the differences by parental background and what is their relative importance?
•    Are there differences between Scotland and Ireland in the level of inequality and the processes shaping it?  

Type of inequality
Previous research has generally focused on mother’s education or social class. Instead, the analyses adopt a multidimensional approach to inequality, focusing on differences in child outcomes by parental social class, mother’s education and household income.

Against all odds: Enabling factors in early childhood for cognitive outcomes

This research investigates the extent to which children from more disadvantaged backgrounds achieve cognitive outcomes higher than their peers and the factors which are behind their more successful outcomes from a life-course perspective. The aim is to identify and understand specific factors and turning points in children’s lives which can help children to overcome the negative influences of the social disadvantage they are born in and to shed light on the mechanisms at play. Thus, we ask the following questions:
1)    To what extent do children from disadvantaged backgrounds attain successful cognitive outcomes?
2)    What are the key enabling factors that distinguish successful children from disadvantaged backgrounds (the ‘resilient’) from their peers who attain less? And what is the interplay between the enabling factors analysed?
3)    Are there turning points in the life-course of disadvantaged children which enable them to achieve better outcomes than expected?

Growing up with a lone mother in Scotland: the role of employment, childcare and family ties on children’s wellbeing

Increasing scholarly attention has focused on the link between family demography and inequalities, and its implications for children’s life courses. Children born from more disadvantaged families are more likely to experience family changes and structures that are associated with a loss of resources, such as their parents’ early and non-marital family formation, union instability and weaker labour market attachment. These experiences have important repercussions on children’s well-being and chances in life.

Mothers’ employment patterns and child behaviour: Comparing Scotland and Germany

The number of working women has markedly increased in recent decades. In this process, many debates have focused on how the children of working mothers fare in terms of well-being and development: On the one hand, maternal employment may negatively impact children because employed mothers have less time to spend with their child and they may be more stressed than non-employed mothers. On the other hand, increased family income and satisfaction derived from work may have positive effects on children. Maternal employment is socially stratified. Working in low-skilled occupation or stressful working conditions is more likely to be experienced by women in less favourable life conditions, particularly, low educated mothers. If these working conditions negatively affect child outcomes, then social inequalities are likely to accumulate. Therefore, studying the impact of maternal employment on child outcomes may shed light on processes of cumulative disadvantage in the early life course.
The key research questions are:
•    Does maternal employment affect the socio-emotional wellbeing of children growing up with a lone mother?

Our other areas of research

Illustration of the coronavirus in red on a black background


Mother and son holding hands


Car window smashed by car thief


People with hands raised in lecture


Workers in an open plan office


Industrial Chimneys with smoke raising


Students chatting in the library


chalk drawing of male and female on balance scales


New houses being built in a new development


Criminal with handcuffs behind back


Dad with two children walking hand in hand to the bus stop


Block of high rise flats